A few posts ago I postulated that for most people, for most types of ‘news’ algorithms based around attention and the social graph may well be almost good enough to replace the idea of subscribing to RSS feeds of content directly.
And then Flipboard came along.
Flipboard is a news reader for the iPad with an exquisite interface that’s just right for the touchscreen interface — it’s all page turning and large buttons. So far so Reeder (my favourite iPad RSS reader), but Flipboard does a couple of things that make it stand out, and doesn’t do a couple of things that make it on the way to being the sort of thing that will make RSS feeds as user technology scarcer:
There’s no attention profiling that I can see, but there’s absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be an addition that the makers are working on. No, it won’t replace an RSS reader — but it’s not trying, and in many situations it’s better for that.
Some work to do to implement something similar that works on other sorts of devices (a conventional computer would need a very different interface), but for iPad it’s good enough.
As I said, I don’t see QR codes ever being widely accepted in the UK, easier and lower impact methods of getting to the right web content have already started to take over. They’ll be skipped, be skip-tech, because easier to understand methods are “just good enough”.
This isn’t an isolated incident. The rise of the flip camera or the mp3, even the cassette tapes are the triumph of “just good enough” (see Wired 17.09). Sure, audiophiles want lossless FLAC files, gold cables, valve speakers but it’s niche activity — better yes, but a better than most people neither need nor really care about enough to put in the extra time or money.
I’ve been thinking that RSS, at least direct use of RSS by people subscribing in readers might just be about to go the same way.
Attention profiling and algorithmic suggestion aren’t great, yet — but they’re getting better and combining with social search results (Google’s “results from your social circle” and packages of social links like Twitter Times are good) will soon produce a news feed that is good enough for most purposes.
I teach search and RSS skills a lot. I spent a good couple of hours with Multistory this morning helping the team get to grips with the technology, the ideas of search feeds, sharing RSS items with each other, using the technology to its best effect; we were looking at how to to a great job at being aware of everything they can be on the be to do with their work. But we professional connectors, the researchers, the obsessives in our fields will be niche — for the things we care about most we’ll work hard but for other stuff, “just good enough” will be good enough.
The new BBC news site layout makes the actual RSS feeds for the sections (as opposed to the explanation of what the technology is) much harder to find, it’s pushed into the browser detection removing it from being a piece of obvious or mainstream tech.
I no longer subscribe to any news feeds from the mainstream national press, already the combination of social links and search for the topics I know I care about is “good” enough for the things I’m interested in about to find me “just enough” of the time. Those talking about “the death of RSS” for the last couple of years, have meant that people were getting their timely links through social means, that’s not as good, but for the people who’ve stopped using RSS readers it’s “just good enough”.
I’m not sure of the format that this “just good enough” reader will take — design it this instant and perhaps it would look like one for the experimental layouts the New York Times has been working on, or perhaps the Guardian’s iPhone app. Make a personalised feed that measured your attention, factored in the news and added the best from your social graph (well enough )and pump it direct to you via Twitter or wherever else you spend your online life and it’d take off like a shot. It wouldn’t be enough for everyone, or provide enough on each of everyone’s interest — but “just good enough” for most, most if the time it’d be.
I saw Eli Pariser talk recently and he wowed the crowd by showing the difference between “your Google” and other peoples’ — even if you’re not signed in, search results are personalised based on a ton of factors (location, cookies of previous searches etc). The worry that hits people is that this may mean that searchers aren’t exposed to opinions from outside of their social graphs. Our “just good enough” reader has the same problems — but there’s no reason that the algorithm for it shouldn’t be open, so at least you would have the opportunity to be aware of the bargain you were making.
Most may not care, “just good enough” will be good enough and the idea of RSS as a front-facing mainstream technology may well be gone.
Here’s a pipe I’ve created that attempts to marshal the content from hyperlocal blogging in Birmingham and allow people only to subscribe to feeds that interest them. This is a piece of investigation and experimentation that I’ve been able to find the time to do thanks to Will Perrin and his hyperlocal blogging initiative Talk About Local. Will also helped define the reason why it would be useful to do — for what he called “lazy journalists”.
Lazy here is used in the same way that it might be used — in praise — of a computer programmer; that is, lazy means you’ll work hard at setting yourself up right to make sure you get everything you need easily later on. Will got to the crux of the argument by saying that journalists interested in a subject — let’s say noise abatement issues — could easily find examples of those at a local level outside the areas they physically know.
So this is a run through of the decisions made in building it (and what other options could work), it’s no more than a prototype at this stage so comments and improvements are very welcome. However if you would rather just get stuck into the pipe itself, head on over.
If you’re doing any sort of professional work on Twitter then the main part of what you should do is listen. Listen to see what people are saying about you or your areas of expertise. You might find useful information, or you might find useful contacts or leads — or more likely you’ll be able to help people who are asking questions about you or things you aspire to be seen as expert about. In this quick guide I’ll use the term “brand” but really, “interest” area is just as valid. I’m going to assume that you’ve used Twitter (if not here’s a quick start guide), and that your “brand” has a Twitter account — if not then then the listening will all be of “interest” type but it’ll still be worthwhile, and will help you get used to how people use it to talk about services or products or subject areas.
I’ll do a “how to tweet on behalf of a brand” guide soon, as I’m doing a bit of work in that area with a couple of organisations — they’re very different in scope and what I find out there will be useful to others I hope. But first to the listening…
Importantly you’ll need to (learn to) use Twitter Search and RSS, and particularly Advanced Search. We’ll use the search to build queries that show you the sort of things about your brand or subject area that you need to know.
You can refine your searches with; Words, People (to, from or about), Places (Near this place,Within this distance), Dates, Attitudes (With positive attitude , With negative attitude , Asking a question ?), or Containing links.
When you’ve got the searches up, you can subscribe to an RSS feed of new results — it’s by far the best way, and it’s the one that will keep you sane.
First up you’ll want to monitor all @replies to you – especially if you don’t have anyone monitoring your account all day. Yes the @replies tab shows you this, but this is mainly about monitoring – not spending all day checking twitter as if it was an email inbox.
You should probably also set up a search (and subscribe to the RSS feed) of any tweets “referencing” your account name – which is mentioning you without it being the first.
After that it’s up to you, pick the combinations and searches that bring up things you’re interested in – if you’re a local business you might try tweets near you matching your work (a plumber could set up searches for “burst pipe” or “plumber” within their catchment area) if you’re a nationwide (or worldwide) organisation then you’ll have to find another way to filter down to
How you chose to respond to the tweets you find is up to you, to simply respond and say “you’ve been talking about X hire me” would be seen as spam. But again, to use the plumber example you could offer advice to help and build trust that way (eg “turn off your water, the stopcock might well be…” or “if your heating isn’t coming on, check the pilot light of your boiler”), chances are helpful tweets will be well received — good vibes for your brand might build business slowly or quickly, but they’ll be worth it in the end.
Make sure your profile offers enough information: website address, even phone number if you like so that anyone you’ve interacted with knows who you are and how to find out more or contact you.
All this works best with RSS, to try to monitor everything in real time (whether in a tool like TweetDeck, or by manually refreshing the search page) would be time consuming and would eventually drive you crazy. RSS is the key to managing information, and it’ll be worth your time to try to get to grips with it.
But if you really struggle, then there is a way to get this stuff by email — TweetBeep
TweetBeep is like Google alerts for Twitter, you can use the site to send you an email when new things match your search terms. For keywords, people or location it’s nothing Twitter’s own search facility doesn’t offer – apart from the email alerts, which can be set to come to you hourly, daily etc.
Aaron Swartz's Raw Thought reports that the US Government's new Stimulus bill requires that each government agency report the money it gives out in RSS, it's not just unstructured text, but will have to be reusable data. This is a real big deal for standards of data disttibution and re-use. [link]
The Birmingham Post recently published a ‘list of shame’ of local bodies that don’t make their information available by RSS. It’s pretty damning, and Birmingham City Council are one of the worst offenders — which a Brummie worries me (and is why I use them as an example here, but it’s a problem everywhere, with all types of organisations). They’re working on a new website, which you would hope would help, although their recently launched site for the ‘Big City Plan‘ has a news/events page without a feed — which indicates to me that the people ordering this stuff don’t seem to get it. It seems that organisations think that this technology is a ‘nice to have’, or an ‘extra’ – rather than the building block of the social web and the most important way to distribute your information there is.
They’re waiting for it to reach ‘mainstream’ adoption, or at least for the voices demanding it to come from the media. Which is why the Post taking a bit of a stand is important.
But I would say that RSS is almost more ‘mainstream’ than the press.
According to a Forrester report (the report is paid for, I gleaned info from it from around the web), 11% of US internet users use RSS. This might well be on the high side – but it’s the most thorough survey I can find.
16.5/100 * 11 = 1.82
Which means that if we follow US patterns of usage (and we’re quicker, better, faster than them, right?) at least 1,815,000 people use RSS in the UK.
Average household size in the UK is around 2.31 people, so the number could be almost double.
That’s my ‘back of an envelope’ calculation (see, I actually did it on the back of an envelope), it’s not scientific but it’s the best I can get without commissioning my own surveys.
Is 1.82 million people ‘mainstream’?
I like to think of RSS as ‘quality news’, so let’s compare it to other sources of ‘quality news’ – Newsnight’s average viewing figure is around 1,000,000. And ‘quality newspapers’ average daily sale (latest ABC figures): Guardian 358,379, Independent 201,113, Times 621,831, Telegraph 835,497 – adding up to 2,016,820 (actually some 45,000 of the Telegraph’s sales are abroad, so UK sales may well be lower than this).
That would leave RSS adoption slightly less than broadsheet reading, but way above those watching the Beeb’s flagship news magazine programme.
But is quality news mainstream? Maybe not, but I bet people who watch or read aren’t dismissed as ‘geeks’. In fact most organisations spend vast sums of money for just the chance to get their message out to these people. And it isn’t even either/or – as Joanna demonstrates using RSS is more likely to get your information out to the quality press.
So what is ‘mainstream’?
Estimates suggest that the largest participation sport in the UK is fishing, one million licences sold a year with maybe 3 times that having a rod, a line, and a mouthful of maggots at the weekend. So RSS is (very roughly) of the same order of magnitude as our most popular activities. But perhaps fishing is a bad example, it certainly doesn’t get much media coverage. Let’s try football.
1,072,402 people attended League Cup football matches last season (from Wikipedia, caveats apply) — or there were 1,072,402 tickets sold, people supporting teams that played more than one match will have gone more than once. Luckily for the ‘mainstream’ a lot of people who attended these football matches did so with their mobile phones, their cameras, laptops, their large Outside Broadcast trucks, chains of command, broadcast rights, satellites and TV networks and pushed the information out to other people.
So football is ‘mainstream’, but actually getting out of the house and watching it is less done than getting your information via a format based on XML.
But it’s more than that, people who get their news from and other medium – TV, radio, papers, paper’s websites, blogs, in my case people down the pub – are indirectly benefiting form RSS as the people that filter the news are using RSS.
I propose that we stop making excuses, RSS is more than mainstream. It’s a huge and fast growing method of news delivery – one that is almost cost-free once you’ve decided to have a website. If you are an organisation that wants your information out and read by people, you are doing yourself a disservice by not using it. If you don’t understand it, you need to hook up with someone who does.
I’m going public, I want people to supply me with RSS and I’m going to – politely – request that they do so. They’re not doing ‘some geeks’ a favour, they’re doing one for themselves.
I’ve had 200 badges made with “Feed Me” on, and I’m going to wear one all the time – and help explain the ‘RSS deal’ to anyone who asks me what it is.
I’ve been thinking some more about the whole, information overload, autogenerated echo, crossposting thing.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want RSS feeds aggregated for me on yet another web service, I don’t want every feed from every person and have to filter them out (and for duplicates). In short I want all my information in one place, custom search feeds and the like as well as people’s RSS, news as well as flickr tag feeds.
I like the Google Reader experience, I like that it’s in sync across my laptop, my phone, other computers. Google Reader could blow FriendFeed and others away if it implemented a few new features.
Here’s my new feature wishlist for Google Reader: